Overtraining is a funny topic, because it’s so profoundly misunderstood. It’s misunderstood at levels that get people feeling like they’re lazy if they don’t train that day; or on the other end of the spectrum: feeling like their workout allows them to sit the rest of the week out in hopes that they "hit it hard enough already." Neither are correct. That's more neurosis than simple objective feedback from your body.
I sometimes even hesitate to dwell on this topic in any sensationalist way because, while it's incredibly important, I never want to come off as the "told ya-so" disciplinarian parent, nor do I want to coddle and excuse what could simply be a lack of effort and discipline on the part of the trainee. Both outcomes are negative and lead to the athlete simply tuning out to what could be good advice. So for the athletes and coaches reading this alike, I encourage you to be very aware of how to deal with overtraining in athletes and the signs of it, but trust that you have the knowledge, education and intuition when the problem arises. Don't stress; the stress is much worse.
Overtraining quite simply is the state you find yourself in after chronically overreaching in your training effort. Much can be mitigated by recovery efforts, but even the best laid recovery practices can’t outrun a body that can’t recover, adapt, and come back stronger.
I made mention a few weeks ago in my article on The Athlete of Over 30 Best Practices, that you should alter your training plans for the day if you’re feeling over-trained. But how do you know if you’re overtrained? Let’s discuss…
Did you over-reach in the past 2 days?
Overreaching in strength and conditioning circles refers to the temporary over-exertion of yourself to reach a certain short-term goal. Maybe it was you going the extra round in jiu jitsu (past your normal capacity), or having multiple consecutive two-a-days.
In the gym, it may mean that you went for your PR in a squat or deadlift in the past 48 hours. Maybe you had a two-a-day: sprints in the morning, strength training in the evening. The actual practice of this isn't "bad," but the chronic repeating of it can get you in trouble (why do you think so many programs have "de-load" weeks and times where you alter your volume and intensity?)
You can conceivably overreach for a number of sessions in a row to produce a desired training effect, but you’ll be in slippery territory if you do this unsupervised or chronically. Sometimes, high level athletes will overreach to achieve a certain goal.
Whatever the case, you've dealt a slightly larger than normal blow to your nervous system that your body is recovering from and adapting to in order to come back stronger. While this is happening, you’d be wise to move, but somewhere in the 60-70% total exertion/effort range max for the immediate 48-72 hours after. This could include longer duration cardio/running/biking, practicing your technique for your lifts by doing higher volume and low weight sets, drilling in jiu jitsu, etc.
To be clear, you are not overtrained at this point. However, if you chronically trained in this fashion, you’d probably be pushing into over-training territory. Precisely how much is a personal approximation and number, and is in part, measured by some of the small giveaways listed below. To figure it out first though, you must take an inventory of your body.
reflect, but don't get too "heady"
There are many reasons a mental malaise and brain fog can onset that are not a result of physical fatigue. Stress, distractions from work, life, family or otherwise, and simply not being present can easily disrupt your focus, and have physical manifestations. You’ll feel tired, cranky, or just physically drained. Should you train on those days? That depends…
It’s hard to distinguish between this “attitude fatigue” and actual physical over-training. A quick way to tell which is which is by thinking to your last 4 training sessions. Are you usually happy and enthusiastic to go and knock it out of the park? Then you may be actually in need of that extra rest day if you're feeling sludgy. Conversely, if you’re always hemming and hawing the whole way to the gym and don’t really get focused until your first set, then you’re probably simply psyching yourself out… in the bad way. In this case, training would probably be a good idea.
It simply comes down to being disciplined. You won’t always feel like training, but you should. Compliance and how much you show up and complete what’s outlined is what’s most important.
So if you’re certain it’s not an attitude fatigue incident, let’s explore these four clues:
Find a “benchmark exercise”
Everyone has an exercise they’re good at and simply have a higher aptitude in relation to other exercises. My personal one is the Farmer’s Walk. Besides simply being a strength and strength capacity building exercise, the Farmer’s Walk gives me a good indication to my balance that day, basic coordination, and how tense or tight I am feeling. On most days, if I pick up a heavy kettle bell, dumbbell, or any thick-gripped implement, I feel ready to move with it. However, there’s some days where I am simply off and even grabbing a 16kg or 20kg kettle bell to do a simple warm-up is asking a lot. Moving is tough, coordination of my legs while walking is off (more on that below), and everything just feels heavier than it should.
Simply put, if an exercise is hard that you know should be easy, you may want to reconsider training that day. Take a longer warm-up, get into some harder working sets to see what happens, but don’t be surprised if you need to alter your workouts.
The same goes for combat sports, particularly grappling. If you’re feeling really sluggish and a lack of sharpness after 10-15 minutes of warming up and a few times through your favorite pass or sweep, you may want to stick to drilling that day.
Check your breathing
If you are sore, tight, stressed, or simply not having a good day, the chances that you are dysfunctionally breathing are quite high. You're probably breathing through your mouth, and/or possibly infrequently, and sighing and grunting a lot. If that's you, simply take a few deep diaphragmatic breaths and see what happens. I wager you'll find a lot more calm.
On the bright side of this practice, you'll have focused and altered your state in a very positive way for your training session. The relaxed demeanor and increased mobility of your tissue will allow you to fully utilize everything you have for the training session.
On the other side of the coin, if this still reveals some fatigue, you'll have taken the first step to putting your body in a "healing" state by blunting your sympathetic nervous system, and moving yourself into the parasympathetic realm, allowing your body to start healing better.
I notice amongst athletes and avid gym-goers alike, that grip strength is one of the first things to go as they approach overtraining and chronic overreaching territory. This observation is only valid of course, if people have a standard warm-up or some exercise that they’re used to using a heavy gripping effort for that we can compare it to session-to-session.
We usually notice this at the beginning of a workout when someone is going to pick up a dumbbell or kettle bell they’re used to handling for warm-up purposes, or if they go to hang from a bar. Invariably, when they’re a little overly fatigued, it feels heavier to them than it should. This has a lot to do with your nervous system readiness, that is, how quickly your body and brain are communicating to execute what you’re asking of it. The physical therapists I work with often equate grip strength issues to core issues as well; so if you're overly sore and damaged through the torso, and your grip isn't up to snuff, then we may have a reduced training load on our hands.
I particularly like to do a shoulder warm-up series with kettle bells to warmup before workouts. On the days in which I am a little over-trained, I find myself a little slower to process the grip of the thick handles, and it simply feels more difficult than it should to work with 12 or 16kg.
Tripping on the mats? Doing a farmers walk and having issues staying under center? Not unlike grip strength feeling weak, your balance and all the systems that dictate it (vestibular, etc) can be the first to go when your body is shuttling its resources elsewhere. Often times, it takes a set or two to get your body and balance in sync, but if it’s going past the initial warm-up, you’d benefit from scaling back that day.
PROGRESSION AND PERIODIZATION ARE REAL THINGS
I find there’s two ends of this spectrum: people who very obviously have a lot on their training plate and are feeling burned out, and people who train much less frequently, but still feel burned out. Both individuals are making mistakes of programming and periodization.
Don’t get discouraged if you’re feeling a bit over-trained and it’s coming from just a few workouts per week. You should already be logging your exercise (if you take it seriously), so go back and see what your total number of workouts was in 1 month. Increase that number by roughly 10-15% the next month to help build your capacity. Secondly, heed the next bullet point (more on that below. Spoiler alert: improve your recovery habits).
However, maybe you’re the opposite; maybe you’re burning out and it’s because you’re training TOO much. Remember, give yourself 48 hours if necessary between strength training bouts, and don’t expect to be king of the ring/mats the day after a hard strength training session either.
Identify Your Recovery Errors
The best laid plans can be easily laid to waste if your recovery efforts are tainted. The tried and true advice of proper sleep, diet and stress management go a long way. If you feel like you do everything perfect, but are chronically stressed and subsequently, under-slept, you WILL suffer. There is no way around this and I see it ALL the time. Stress management can derail all your training efforts and increase your chance for injury, blunt your progress, and make you retain unwanted weight. This is not an exaggeration and it's something I deal with almost weekly with clients and athletes (I live and train in NYC, after all...).
The worst thing you can do is worry. Remember, all these markers and symptoms are objective feedback from your body that something is off. They aren't a statement of judgement about you as an athlete.
Start becoming more mindful of everything above and you'll give yourself a much deeper window into your recovery habits. If you are indeed overtrained, you will be able to diagnose and appropriately respond to keep yourself healthy. It bears repeating that the majority of people reading this article may not need this advice now, but being mindful of these things can actually enhance and help you train harder and smarter later, as you can proceed full speed ahead if you are covering the spread and having no ill effects. We didn't cover everything, because that could be a book in itself, but I hope this got you all thinking about the topic.
ps- If you have any rituals or signs you notice in recognizing overtraining, leave a comment below.